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In the Mouth of Madness (1994) – Carpenter countdown #15

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Well, we're out of the three really bad ones and into the four that have their flaws, but which are watchable without wincing throughout. The order of these has been shuffled round more than any other section, because there's stuff to like about each of them.

Concept: An HP Lovecraftian 'Elder Gods' story of someone being driven insane by seeing the world as it really is.

Sam Neill is brought into an insane asylum. It turns out that he's not quite recovered from being in Memoirs a cynical insurance investigator who was asked to find a missing horror author, Jürgen Prochnow's Sutter Cane. Cane's books are extremely disturbing, and many of their readers go insane – one example attacks Neill with an axe in a restaurant. But the books are also extremely successful and business is business, so the publisher Charlton Heston wants to find him because he's after the rest of the manuscript for the next, In the Mouth of Madness. Only two people have seen any of it, editor Julie Carmen and Cane's agent – the man who attacked him with an axe… So as the world around him begins to go wrong, Neill starts reading the novels and realises that they reveal their fictional setting, Hobb's End, to be somewhere in New Hampshire. Carmen and Neill set off, get lost, and mysteriously find it. Everything is as in the novels, right down to a loose floorboard in a hotel, and of course, everyone in it is being turned into monsters. They meet Cane who declares that he's just writing what the Elder Gods tell him so that more people believe in them and they can end the world. Hobb's End is impossible to escape from, but having been given the manuscript, Neill is sent back into the 'real' world where he destroys it, only to be told that Carmen never existed and that he gave the manuscript in months ago. The world goes mad, Neill escapes the asylum and ends up laughing while watching the film of the book… the film we have just been watching.

What's good: The 'something's not quite right' sections are very good, such as the group of children chasing a dog… later seen with only three legs and with the children having bloody, deformed mouths. The samples of other Hobb's End storylines – the lovely old owner of the hotel who's got her husband chained up naked and who is growing tentacles, the Thing in the Greenhouse, the child taken for sacrifice in the church – are all good stuff.

There's more intelligence here than the vast majority of horror films. The issue of what's reality and what's in Neill's head is left nicely open: 'Reality isn't what it used to be!'

What's bad: Nothing really, which is why we're out of the dire group.

What's not so good: The reveal isn't as good as the build up. Other films have this problem too, of course. By far the best bits of the Kubrick version of The Shining are the shots of the boy cycling around the hotel: you know something horrible is going to happen, but not what or when. In contrast, Jack Nicholson finally going wild with an axe is amusing rather than frightening. Here, we're treated to some not terribly convincing wobbly tentacled beings which are supposed to send you insane just by looking at them. They don't.

The structure doesn't quite work. There's a fanedit that recomposes the film into a linear story, losing the occasional flashes of the other bits of the story, and it works much better that way.

The casting isn't quite right either. Neill does cynical investigator much better than madman, while Carmen is better asleep (or as a model head on an acrobat's body!) than awake. In contrast, Prochnow doesn't really get a chance to show his talent.

Music: Co-composed with Jim Lang. It's one of the better later ones, with an interesting mix of 'rock', 'blues' and moody 'synth' tracks.

Miscellany: Carpenter reckons this is the third of a trilogy of unconnected 'apocalypse' films (the others being The Thing and Prince of Darkness). While all have 'end of civilization as we know it' themes, the others are better.

Hobb's End was the name of the fictional London Underground station in Quatermass and the Pit.

Overall: This has more ambition than the previous three films (and the next) added together. It's just a pity that it doesn't quite work. The 'it can't be true… but it is!' genre has produced some better films than this and similarly the 'you are just a character in my book' twist has been done better too.

This has a surprisingly high 7.0 rating on IMDB.com, higher than all of the films in my next section, so clearly there are people who appreciate it more than I do. It is certainly striking and memorable, but I'd just like it to be better.

Part of the problem is that no-one's done a good commercial 'Elder Gods' type film. The best effort is from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, who were behind the 2005 b/w(!) silent(!!) Call of Cthulhu, and no-one's going to spend $20m on making that.

TL;DR A good effort at filming the unfilmable.

Film: 2/5
DVD: 3/5

For some reason, this isn't available on DVD in the UK. There's a R1 (USA / Canada / etc) release which has the most technical commentary he's ever done – it's with the lighting cameraman director of photography, and at times goes into details like which gels were used in front of which size of what sort of lights from what direction. Director's commentaries are sometimes called free film school lessons, and this one certainly qualifies for anyone thinking of making a film themselves.

The imported DVD and the soundtrack CD:

Written by Ian

June 10th, 2011 at 9:34 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

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